IATEFL 2014: Debunking Pseudo-Science in ELT


EAP is probably my main area of professional interest, as it is the bread and butter of the institution where I work.  I therefore try to see as many presentations as I can based on teaching and learning English for university.

But before I talk about the EAP sessions I saw, I must talk about what I would classify as the best presentation I saw at IATEFL this year: Russ Mayne’s A Guide to Pseudo-Science in English Language Teaching.

This half-hour presentation is a tour de force that sets out to debunk four movements quite popular in ELT– learning styles, multiple intelligences, neuro-linguistic programming, and BrainGym–using research literature to support his claims that they’re all rubbish. It was a scathingly frank takedown–organizations and individuals guilty of promoting these four theories were called out directly–and no words were minced as wielded citation after citation to build his case. His overall message was that in order for our profession to be taken seriously, and to maintain its credibility, intuition and “feeling” is not enough; we must look to science for insight into what we do and how we do it.

I echo this sentiment completely; having arrived at the world of ELT armed with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics I have wanted to pull my hair out at times  when hearing teaching colleagues spout nonsense about language that wasn’t grounded in any type of theory at all. And I only wish I had more of a background in psychology and cognitive science to support my working knowledge of second language acquisition and the brain; this talk made me want to go out and read up.

But especially for those of us that teach EAP, Russ’s talk, and this idea of credibility, are very important.  We’re teaching English to scholars; at my institution at least, for every immature 17-year old undergrad we have at least 2 master’s or PhD researchers in our classes. They want to know that what and how they’re being taught EAP is scientifically grounded. I’ve certainly been challenged on this point before (by a student who was a royal pain in the arse, but nonetheless), and I was confident enough in my methods and course content to be able to put out an open invite for anyone in the class that wanted to to come to my office and see some of the literature supporting what I was doing in the course. My goal is to keep up on new developments, so that balance of literature, in combination with experience and best practices, can underpin whatever form and context my future teaching will take.

Russ is based at the University of Leicester and runs a blog entitled Evidence-based EFL, which, as the title suggests, is “dedicated to looking at language and language teaching from an evidence-based viewpoint”, which I look forward to including on my blogroll.


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